Formaldehyde can be oxidized primarily by two different enzymes, the low-K(m) mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase and the cytosolic GSH-dependent formaldehyde dehydrogenase. Experiments were carried out to evaluate the effects of diethyl maleate or phorone, agents that deplete GSH from the liver, on the oxidation of formaldehyde. The addition of diethyl maleate or phorone to intact mitochondria or to disrupted mitochondrial fractions produced inhibition of formaldehyde oxidation. The kinetics of inhibition of the low-K(m) mitochrondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase were mixed. Mitochondria isolated from rats treated in vivo with diethyl maleate or phorone had a decreased capacity to oxidize either formaldehyde or acetaldehyde. The activity of the low-K(m), but not the high-K(m), mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase was also inhibited. The production of CO2 plus formate from 0.2 mM-[14C]formaldehyde by isolated hepatocytes was only slightly inhibited (15-30%) by incubation with diethyl maleate or addition of cyanamide, suggesting oxidation primarily via formaldehyde dehydrogenase. However, the production of CO2 plus formate was increased 2.5-fold when the concentration of [14C]formaldehyde was raised to 1 mM. This increase in product formation at higher formaldehyde concentrations was much more sensitive to inhibition by diethyl maleate or cyanamide, suggesting an important contribution by mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase. Thus diethyl maleate and phorone, besides depleting GSH, can also serve as effective inhibitors in vivo or in vitro of the low-K(m) mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase. Inhibition of formaldehyde oxidation by these agents could be due to impairment of both enzyme systems known to be capable of oxidizing formaldehyde. It would appear that a critical amount of GSH, e.g. 90%, must be depleted before the activity of formaldehyde dehydrogenase becomes impaired.